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Like The Onion®, “The Nation’s Finest New Source™,” The New York Times editorial page sometimes slides into self-parody but, Paul Krugman aside, its op-ed page is often worth reading. Such was the case on Wednesday, March 06, 2013, when The Times featured two thoughtful and informative pieces on the role and future of education in North America.
The first, “The Country That Stopped Reading,” by Mexican novelist David Toscana (“The Last Reader”) and translated from the original Spanish by Kristina Cordero, describes how the Mexican state school system has managed over the past few decades to produce more functionally illiterate citizens than ever while ostensibly enrolling more students.
The second, Thomas Friedman’s “The Professors’ Big Stage,” describes the increasingly outmoded “higher education” system of the nation north of Mexico’s border, namely the United States. Taken together, the two pieces reveal much about what is wrong with current educational systems and offer suggestions for improvement that will require seismic shifts in pedagogical thinking.
Toscana’s piece posits that Mexico, once a reasonably well-educated country and despite recent gains in industrial development and increasing numbers of engineering graduates, is today “floundering socially, politically and economically because so many of its citizens do not read.” Not that they can’t read, but that they simply don’t.
Part of the problem, Toscana observes, is that “education reform” in Mexico has focused on teachers instead of students. As he notes, “the job of the education secretary has not been to educate Mexicans but to deal with the teachers and their labor issues” and “[n]obody in Mexico organizes as many strikes as the teachers’ union.” The result, he says, is that “students can advance from one level to the next as long as they attend class and surrender to their teachers” but that Mexican schools have accordingly turned into factories that churn out “chauffeurs, waiters and dishwashers” rather than educated citizens suitable for self-government.
The same could be said in the United States, particularly in large cities like Chicago and San Antonio. Here in Chicago, for example, the consistent theme of all-too-common teachers’ strikes and labor negotiations is preserving lucrative pension and benefit plans, maintaining the “due process” that helps keep unqualified teachers on the public payroll for years, and keeping superfluous schools open in order to preserve un-needed teaching and administrative jobs.
“Education reform” in Chicago, in other words, appears to have precious little to do with actually helping students prepare for either the job market or the responsibilities of citizenship, and changing the name of every public high school in the city to “Career Academy” or “College Prep” won’t make a difference. Meanwhile, in places like San Antonio, elementary school teachers spend such inordinate amounts of time just feeding breakfast and lunch to their charges that they have little time for actual teaching and tend to burn out quickly.
At the other end of the spectrum is “higher education,” which is where Tom Freidman’s column comes into play. Along with “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” and “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” one of former President Bill Clinton’s more memorable lines was that he wanted to make the 13th grade as common as the twelfth grade. And indeed, here in the U. S. we have: virtually everyone in America thinks he or she (or his or her children) should go to college and virtually anyone who wants to go to college gets in somewhere. Yet nearly half of college enrollees eventually drop out and many of the 56 percent who do actually graduate within six years are unprepared for the real world of business and self-government.
Having become truly “the 13th grade” of elementary/secondary school, the first year at many colleges is often reduced to remedial courses, while over the next four or five years students may officially major in such amorphous fields as “gender studies” while actually majoring in beer pong. Meanwhile the cost of college tuition, directly and indirectly subsidized by taxpayers, keeps rising out of proportion to the cost of almost everything else except government and health care – with both of which it has much in common.
Yet some hope remains. As Friedman notes, fresh on the heels of attending “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education,” a conference co-sponsored by Harvard and M.I.T., the traditional college experience is becoming increasingly irrelevant in an inter-connected world.
When the Harvard Business School, to use an example Friedman cites, no longer offers an introductory accounting course because the online version at Brigham Young University is “just so good,” it’s no longer necessary to go to Harvard to get an education – or even to Brigham Young. Just sign up for no charge for one of the thousands of online courses now available through MOOC – Massive Open Online Courses – and offered by institutions from Cal Tech to Vanderbilt, with Princeton, Rice, and Stanford in between.
To be sure, as Friedman notes, in-person student-teacher and student-student interface still provides some value. Yet it is hard to see how such interface justifies the cost of today’s entire college experience, from college applications to the college visitation tour to on-campus housing and dining facilities to student activities funds and such esoterica as student health care coverage for sex reassignment surgery.
Here in the second decade of the 21st century North Americans still operate with 18th century models of education inherited from the Puritans (although todays’ mores and curricula are far from Puritan). As today’s Times op-ed page amply demonstrates, our educational systems are in serious need of rethinking, and soon.